SPOTLIGHT: A Series to Inspire Engaging Teachers

Precipitating positive transformation of students’ lives and learning.

LIGHTING A FIRE | by Mark Gura

What is it that teachers want and need most? Which element of practice, if finally provided to the vast multitude of teachers hungry for it, will precipitate positive transformation of students’ lives and learning? Hint: it has to do with a basic human need, one that has eluded education reformers. It’s also the focus of a program currently under development by (EdTech Digest 2018 Company of the Year) Nearpod called SPOTLIGHT: Inspiring Stories of Student Engagement. A series of content designed to shift education’s focus from the HOW of teaching (content, theory, and methods) to the all-important WHY (purpose, meaning, and personal growth).  

The Whole Teacher

As Melissa Pelochino, Director of Brand Experience at Nearpod, explains it, teachers report low job satisfaction due to a strong lack of substantial human interaction happening in classrooms. “We can’t begin to address the needs of the whole child until we begin to address those of the whole teacher,” she says. “Until we take care of our educators, we can’t expect them to effectively support the kind of growth in our kids that we most want to see!”

The goal of SPOTLIGHT is to offer teachers everywhere inspiring stories of student engagement along with guide that include reflection questions, and importantly, suggested teaching strategies designed to encourage and support teachers in enriching their own practice. These materials are designed to support easy, incremental change.

Melissa, by the way, taught in inner city schools for many years, eventually burning out, something she attributes to lack of emotional and spiritual support. SPOTLIGHT is an effort to provide today’s teachers with what would have made the difference for her, something she describes as the spiritual dimension of teaching, an essential element for teacher efficacy, satisfaction, and ultimately, retention. She sees this as spiritual, but not in a religious sense:

“I believe that teaching for deep, meaningful learning is done best as a community, it’s a team sport, not something done alone; it stems from deep, interpersonal connections. Traditional teaching, however, with its excessive focus on things like standards and data, strays from this crucial, human dimension. SPOTLIGHT is a professional learning opportunity for teachers that will push their practice forward by restoring a more authentic and healthy focus on values.”  

‘I believe that teaching for deep, meaningful learning is done best as a community, it’s a team sport, not something done alone; it stems from deep, interpersonal connections.’

A Closer Look

I took a look at the first SPOTLIGHT episode, which is already available at the project’s site: It features the awesome teacher, Dustin Ecker of Grassy Creek Elementary in Indianapolis. What I saw I’d describe as much needed nourishment for the soul of teachers and their profession. What did this look like? It looked like joy! Joy in teaching, and for his students, joy in learning. And, above all, crucial confirmation that this is something that’s truly possible!

The approach of the series is to shine a light on inspiring and engaging practices in teaching. SPOTLIGHT videos will be short, roughly 12 minutes. Delivering on the promise of the series is something that doesn’t require length so much as getting to core truths and exploring and illustrating them well.

And because the series is an organic expression of a need felt strongly throughout the field, Melissa explains that future educators to spotlight, those whose work can inspire and inform others, will come from the field, itself: crowd sourced.

“What we ask of those who’ve seen and have been moved by the videos is to think about who they may know or work with, whose work really should be spotlighted and to send us those names as suggestions for upcoming videos. We’ve set up the hashtag #studentengagement for this and we’ll comb through suggestions we receive for people to highlight.

The Purest Form of Teaching

By the time I got to the end of Episode #1 I realized that what I was witnessing was not simply a focus on engagement, but a particular variety of it. In a real sense what I saw is the purest form of teaching, one that relies on the human connection between teacher and student, the more experienced learner drawing the student into mutual commitment to the quest for learning. It’s a very natural thing, something that predates schools, which, in turning their attention most heavily toward the mechanics of instruction, in many ways have forfeited that which they now most seek.

Engagement, the too often holy grail of instruction, is both the most fertile condition for learning, as well as a prime indicator that students and teachers are traveling in sync. But how is this state achieved? Since formal mass education began in the 19th Century, teachers have been cued to rely on extrinsic motivators, rewards and sanctions, grades, gold stars, and contrived goals to achieve it.

But, as Melissa points out: if one teaches in the most natural way, human to human sharing of the act and opportunity of learning, there’s an infectious magic to the experience. And encouragingly, there are teachers out there who have found their way to this state, each discovering his or her own personal alchemy. Importantly, the objective of SPOTLIGHT is not to capture and bottle that, the project doesn’t intend to offer teachers prescriptive scripts. But rather, to capture the spirit of the experiences these teachers give their students and to share the essence of it through videos that may serve as inspiration, and as models through which they can start their own successful journey.

Can All Teachers Do This?

Watching the video, it was easy to become enchanted with Dustin’s teaching, it’s so infectious and uplifting. But can all teachers aspire to making this sort of thing part of what they do with students?

Dustin points out that “Step one to engaging your students and creating an exciting atmosphere is to create a relationship… the more you build relationships, the more engaged they’re going to be on a day to day basis,” and he answers our question perfectly: “I don’t want other people to do exactly what I’m doing because if it’s not true to you then it’s not gonna’ work in your classroom… Engagement works in a lot of different ways, one doesn’t have to be up on the stage dancing and singing; engagement can be meaningful conversations with students or sometimes it can mean being silent.”

One of the tag lines from Episode #1 that jumped out at me, giving the perennial classroom teacher in me a warm embrace is, “we often focus on what’s broken… it’s time to shine a light on what’s working.” I agree, the time for SPOTLIGHT is now; check it out!

Mark Gura is Editor-at-Large for EdTech Digest and author of ‘Make, Learn, Succeed: Building a Culture of Creativity in Your School’ [ISBN: 9781564843807] He is a co-author of State of EdTech: The Minds Behind What’s Now and What’s Next. He taught at New York City public schools in East Harlem for two decades. He spent five years as a curriculum developer for the central office and was eventually tapped to be the New York City Department of Education’s director of the Office of Instructional Technology, assisting over 1,700 schools serving 1.1 million students in America’s largest school system.


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